How I can make a living from my newsletter
According to the numbers.
I want my newsletter, The Novelleist, to be my full-time job. I’ve never felt so creatively on fire as I have this past year writing for Substack—I even just launched Oblivion, a utopian book project that consists of two parts: a utopian novel and a collection of essays imagining a more beautiful future.
But if I want to keep doing this for the long haul, I know I need to figure out how to make it financially sustainable. Right now, I have 6,150 free subscribers, 276 paid subscribers, and $17,847.85 in gross revenue. At $50/year, I’ll need 1,400 paid subscribers to make $70k a year, which means, at my current conversion rate (4.4 percent), I’ll need to have about 31,825 free subscribers. As my newsletter is currently growing by 250 free subscribers each month, it will take me 8.5 years to reach full-time income.
That’s a long time to do projects like this plus a day job!
It’s hard to imagine a world where I stop writing for pleasure, and right now I’m more than happy to pursue this as a hobby. I love writing my novels and newsletter in the mornings, I love my day job, and I’ve finally achieved a balance between the two. But I can also see a future me who wants to spend a little less time on the computer. For this reason, while I write Oblivion, I also want to see if I can make a living doing it.
That starts with some napkin math. How can I change my equation to reach profitability faster?
One of the perks of being a former Substack fellow is that I got to take part in a Substack audit last week. A member of the Substack marketing team analyzed my newsletter against other newsletters of a similar size to see how it performs comparatively. Her feedback was that, though I have a lot of subscribers, I have a low conversion rate and that I should work on increasing that.
According to Substack, most newsletters are able to convert 5-10 percent of their free subscribers into paid ones—4.3 percent of my subscribers are paid subscribers. She thinks I can get closer to 10 by making some simple changes and she put together a strategy document detailing how each of my Substack pages could convert better. You can read her entire analysis here if you’re interested—these probably apply to every Substack writer!
My “About Page” needs the most work (it converts below my peer group, 5.3 percent compared to 11.2 percent). She provided some examples of well-performing About pages I could use as a template, then we went through mine to see what fixes would make it better. Namely: my mission needs to be brief and at the top, clear benefits for free and paid subscribers need to be bulleted out, and the CTA needs to be above the fold. Backstory only comes after all of that.
She also noticed that I put my CTA at the bottom of every post, and said I need to put them above the fold as those spots convert far better than the ones at the bottom. (See how I did that up there👆🏻)
Her most important feedback though was that I need to send targeted emails to segments of my subscribers, asking for their support. For example: send an email to my most engaged subscribers asking if they would support my work. Send an email to those who read my first boom, Obscurity, all the way through and see if they want the hardcover edition as a founding subscriber. She said asking subscribers to support via targeted emails is BY FAR the best thing a writer can do to convert free subscribers into paid ones. She even sent me two amazing templates Substack authors have used with great success, with many writers doubling their paid subscribers from just one email.
The crazy thing is, if I can increase my conversion rate, my equation drastically changes. If I can achieve a 10 percent conversion rate, then to get to 1,400 paid subscribers I only need 14,000 free newsletter subscribers (instead of 31,000+). And at my current growth rate, I could get there in 2.6 years (instead of 8.5). This means that if the only thing I do is focus on converting my existing subscribers at a higher rate, I might actually have the chance of doing this for a living by the time Oblivion is done. (I better get on those emails…)
This is the right time for me to focus on my conversion rate. I spent my first year on the platform solely focused on gaining free subscribers, and now I no longer need to do that as much. Once I hit about 4,000 subscribers at the beginning of the year, I started to notice exponential growth—meaning the kind that happens organically because you have enough subscribers sharing your work for you. (Also, Substack debuted recommendations and then referrals which have had an exponential effect on my subscriber base too!)
I used to have to hustle for every subscriber, but now I get 250 in a month without even trying. In August, I gained 486 subscribers! The same thing happened to Anne Helen Petersen of Culture Study. It took her several years to get to 4,000 subscribers, but only two to get from 4,000 to 17,000 and six figures in revenue!
That’s why I’m no longer focused on building my free list and, this year, I’m focusing on conversions. I’m going to make some tweaks to my about pages, send some targeted emails, and work on my conversion rate while I write a utopian novel and a collection of essays imagining a more beautiful future.
Wish me luck!